THE CONVERSATION

In Denmark, A Hard Language For Kids To Learn Shapes Society

The process machinery to master vowel-heavy Danish explains that way adults tend to interact.

A smiling child
A smiling child
Morten H. Christiansen

Denmark is a rich country with an extensive welfare system and strong education. Yet surprisingly, Danish children have trouble learning their mother tongue. Compared to Norwegian children, who are learning a very similar language, Danish kids on average know 30% fewer words at 15 months and take nearly two years longer to learn the past tense. In "Hamlet," William Shakespeare famously wrote that "something is rotten in the state of Denmark," but he might as well have been talking about the Danish language.

We are a cognitive scientist and language scientist from the Puzzle of Danish group at Aarhus University and Cornell. Through our research, we have found that the uniquely peculiar way that Danes speak seems to make it difficult for Danish children to learn their native language – and this challenges some central tenets of the science of language.

Why is Danish so hard?

There are three main reasons why Danish is so complicated. First, with about 40 different vowel sounds – compared to between 13 and 15 vowels in English depending on dialect – Danish has one of the largest vowel inventories in the world. On top of that, Danes often turn consonants into vowel-like sounds when they speak. And finally, Danes also like to "swallow" the ends of words and omit, on average, about a quarter of all syllables. They do this not only in casual speech but also when reading aloud from written text.

The difficulty of Danish is no secret in Scandinavia, as seen in this clip from a Norwegian comedy TV show.

Other languages might incorporate one of these factors, but it seems that Danish may be unique in combining all three. The result is that Danish ends up with an abundance of sound sequences with few consonants. Because consonants play an important role in helping listeners figure out where words begin and end, the preponderance of vowel-like sounds in Danish appears to make it difficult to understand and learn. It isn't clear why or how Danish ended up with these strange quirks, but the upshot seems to be, as the German author Kurt Tucholsky quipped, that "the Danish language is not suitable for speaking … everything sounds like a single word."

Kids learn later, adults process differently

Before we could study the way Danish children learn their native language, we needed to figure out whether the peculiarities of Danish speech affected their ability to understand it.

To do this, our team sat Danish two-year-olds in front of a screen showing two objects, such as a car and a monkey. We then used an eye tracker to trace where the kids were looking while listening to Danish sentences.

Children playing in front of a wall — Photo: Teresa Grau Ros/Flickr

When the children heard the consonant-rich "Find bilen!" – which sounds like "Fin beelen!" when spoken and means "Find the car!" – the toddlers would look at the car quite quickly.

However, when they heard the vowel-rich "Her er aben!" – which sounds like "heer-ahben!" and means "Here's the monkey!" – it took the kids nearly half a second longer to look at the monkey. In this vowel-laden sentence, the boundaries between words become blurry and make it harder for the toddlers to understand what is being said. Half a second may not seem like much, but in the world of speech it is a very long time.

But does the abundance of vowels in Danish also make it more difficult for children to learn their native language? It turns out that it does. In another study, we found that toddlers struggle to learn new words when these words are sandwiched between a lot of vowels.

Danish children do, of course, eventually learn their native tongue. However, our group has found that the effects of the opaque Danish sound structure don't go away when children grow up: Instead, they seem to shape the way adult Danes process their language. Denmark and Norway are closely related historically, culturally, economically and educationally. The two languages also have similar grammars, past tense systems and vocabulary. Unlike Danes, though, Norwegians actually pronounce their consonants.

In several experiments, we asked Danes and Norwegians to listen to sentences in which either a word was deliberately created to sound ambiguous (like a word halfway between "tent" and "dent") or the meaning of the whole sentence was unusual (such as "The goldfish bought a boy for his sister"). We found that because Danish speech is so ambiguous, Danes rely much more on context – including what was said in the conversation before, what people know about each other and general background knowledge – to figure out what somebody is saying compared to adult Norwegians.

Together, these results indicate that the way people interpret language is not static, but dynamically adapts to the challenges posed by the specific language or languages they speak.

Not all languages are the same

There has been a longstanding debate within the language sciences about whether all languages are similarly complex and whether this might affect how people's brains learn and process language. Our discovery about Danish challenges the idea that all native languages are equally easy to learn and use. Indeed, learning different languages from birth may lead to distinct and separate ways of processing those languages.

Our results also have important practical implications for people who are struggling with language – whether because of a single traumatic event like a stroke or due to genetic and other long-term factors. Many current interventions meant to support language recovery are based on studies in one language, usually English. Researchers assume that these interventions would apply in the same way to individuals speaking other languages. However, if languages vary substantially in the way they're learned and processed, an intervention that might work for one language might not work as well for another.

Linguists have looked at differences between languages before, but few have been concerned with the possible impact that such differences may have on the kind of processing machinery that develops during language learning. Instead, much of the focus has been on searching for universal linguistic patterns that hold across all or most languages. However, our research suggest that linguistic diversity may result in variation in the way we learn and process language. And if a garden-variety language like Danish has such hidden depths, who knows what we'll find when we look more closely at the rest of the world's approximately 7,000 languages?


*Morten H. Christiansen, The William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of Psychology, Cornell University and Fabio Trecca, Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science of Language, Aarhus University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Geopolitics

Erdogan And Boris Johnson: A New Global Power Duo?

As Turkey fears the EU closing ranks over defense, Turkish President Erdogan is looking to Boris Johnson as a post-Brexit ally, especially as Angela Merkel steps aside. This could undermine the deal where Ankara limits refugee entry into Europe, and other dossiers too.

Johnson and Erdogan in NYC on Sept. 20

Carolina Drüten and Gregor Schwung

-Analysis-

BERLIN — According to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency "can't understand" why Turkey would overreact, since the defense pact that France recently signed in Paris with Greece is not aimed at Ankara. The agreement covers billions of euros' worth of military equipment, and the two countries have committed to come to each other's aid if they are attacked.

Although Paris denies this, it is difficult to see the agreement as anything other than a message, perhaps even a provocation, targeted at Turkey.

Officially, the Turkish government is unruffled, saying the pact doesn't represent a military threat. But the symbolism is clear: with the U.S., UK and Australia recently announcing the Aukus security pact, Ankara fears the EU may be closing ranks when it comes to all military issues.

What will Aukus mean for NATO?

Turkey has long felt left out in the cold, at odds with the European Union over a number of issues. Yet now President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is setting his sights on another country, which also wants to become more independent from Europe: the UK.

Europe's approach to security and defense is changing dramatically. Over the past few months, while the U.S. was negotiating the Aukus pact with Britain and Australia behind the EU's back, a submarine deal between Australia and France, which would have been worth billions, was scrapped.

The EU is happy to keep Erdogan waiting

Officially, Turkey is keeping its cards close to its chest. Addressing foreign journalists in Istanbul, Erdogan's chief advisor Ibrahim Kalin said the country was not involved in Aukus, but they hope it doesn't have a negative impact on NATO. However, the agreement will have a significant effect on Turkey.

"Before Aukus, the Turks thought that the U.S. would prevent the EU from adopting a defense policy that was independent of NATO," says Sinan Ülgen, an expert on Turkey at the Brussels think tank Carnegie Europe. "Now they are afraid that Washington may make concessions for France, which could change things."

Macron sees post-Merkel power vacuum

Turkey's concerns may well prove to be justified. Outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel always argued for closer collaboration with Turkey, partly because it is an important trading partner and partly because it has a direct influence on the influx of migrants from Asia and the Middle East to Europe.

Merkel consistently thwarted France's plans for a stricter approach from Brussels towards Turkey, and she never supported Emmanuel Macron's ideas about greater strategic autonomy for countries within the EU.

But now she that she's leaving office, Macron is keen to make the most of the power vacuum Merkel will leave behind. The prospect of France's growing influence is "not especially good news for Turkey," says Ian Lesser, vice president of the think tank German Marshall Fund.

Ankara fears the defense pact between France and Greece could be a sign of what is to come. According to a statement from the Turkish Foreign Ministry, the agreement is aimed "at NATO member Turkey" and is damaging to the alliance. Observers also assume the agreement means that France is supporting Greece's claims to certain territories in the Mediterranean which remain disputed under international law, with Turkey's own sovereignty claims.

Paris is a close ally of Athens. In the summer of 2020, Greece and Turkey were poised on the threshold of a military conflict in the eastern Mediterranean. Since then, Athens has ordered 24 Rafale fighter jets from France, and the new pact includes a deal for France to supply them with three frigates.

Photo of French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

French President Emmanuel Macron and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on September 27 in Paris

Sadak Souici/Le Pictorium Agency/ZUMA

Erdogan’s EU wish list

It's not the first time that Ankara has felt snubbed by the EU. Since Donald Trump left the White House, Turkey has been making a considerable effort to improve relations with Brussels. "The situation in the eastern Mediterranean is peaceful and the migrant problem is under control," says Kalin. Now it is "high time" that Europe does something for Turkey.

Erdogan's wish list is extensive: making it easier for Turks to get EU visas, renegotiating the refugee deal, making more funds available to Turkey as it continues the process of joining the EU, and moderniszing the customs union. But there is no movement on any of these issues in Brussels. They're happy to keep Erdogan waiting.

Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU

Now he is starting to look elsewhere. At the UN summit in September, Erdogan had a meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson at the recently opened Turkish House in New York. Kalin says it was a "very good meeting" and that the two countries are "closely allied strategic partners." He says they plan to work together more closely on trade, but with a particular focus on defense.

 Turkey's second largest export market

The groundwork for collaboration was already in place. Britain consistently supported Turkey's ambition to join the EU, and gave an ultimate proof of friendship after the failed coup in 2016. Unlike other European capitals, London reacted quickly, calling the coup an "attack on Turkish democracy," and its government has generally held back in its criticism of Turkey.

At the end of last year, Johnson and Erdogan signed a new free trade agreement, which will govern commerce between the two countries post-Brexit. Erdogan has called it "the most important treaty for Turkey since the customs agreement with the EU in 1995."

After Germany, Britain is Turkey's second largest export market. "Turkey now has the opportunity to build a new partnership with the United Kingdom and it must make the most of it," says economist Ali Kücükcolak from the Istanbul Commerce University.

Erdogan is well aware of this, as Turkey is in desperate need of an economic boost. Inflation currently stands at 19%, and the currency's value is consistently falling. Turks are feeling the impact on their daily lives: food and rent are becoming increasingly expensive, while salaries remain unchanged.

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